Steaks and Shakes and the Great Depression

May 1, 2011

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Robert Dirks

Robert Dirks recounts the early history of Steak 'n Shake, a hamburger chain started in central Illinois during the Great Depression.

His presentation begins with a description of founder Gus Belt’s original restaurant, a place he called “White House Steak and Shake.” Dirks maintains that the key to its success at a time when many existing “white-box restaurants” (e.g., White Castles, White Taverns, White Towers) were closing was not the food. Rather, it was Belt’s insightful grasp of the Depression mentality and his talent as a showman.

Belt made Steak ‘n Shake all about T-bones and porterhouses, marquee lights, heavy china, and bright boys and girls eager to take orders. His talent as a restaurateur was such that for the price of a hamburger he not only catered to customers’ hunger but served up a bit of fantasy. Sending people away feeling that they had been treated in a special way and making customers feel a little bit better about themselves was central to Steak n Shakes’ success amidst the Great Depression.

Robert Dirks is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at Illinois State University. He is curator of "Come & Get It!," an exhibit at the McLean County Museum of History about 175 years of eating and drinking in Central Illinois. His publications include papers in the Annual Review of Nutrition, Journal of Nutrition, The Cambridge World History of Human Disease, American Anthropologist, and Current Anthropology.

This event was recorded as part of the Greater Midwest Foodways Alliance Fourth Annual Symposium “Midwest Eats! Foodways of the Great Depression,” which focuses on the Great Depression’s impact on our culinary traditions.  Other events from this symposium recorded by Chicago Amplified—listed in the order they were presented—are as follows:

Midwest Eats!  Foodways of the Great Depression
Nightclubs and Bread Lines: Depression Era Foodways On Film
Templeton Rye of Iowa: Its History During and Just After the Prohibition
This Land is Whose land?
John Drury, Ace Chicago Restaurant Reporter of the 1930s
Community Canning in the Depression: A Case Study
Co-Eds at the Co-op: Student Depression-Era Foodways at Old Normal
Greater Midwest Foodways Heirloom Recipe Competition
No Longer does the Holiday Table Groan Under the Weight of Food
Steaks and Shakes and the Great Depression
Beer Production after Prohibition: Setting the Stage for the Rise of the Mega-breweries
The American (Bad) Dream: Soup Kitchens and European Immigrants in Chicago in the 1930s
Chicago’s Maxwell Street

Recorded Saturday, April 30, 2011 at Kendall College.